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(Eye on Ohio, the Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism-Ohio News Connection Collaboration) – For one Ohio trafficking victim, the opening of the accredited rape crisis center at the YWCA Dayton last year proved crucial to quelling her inner demons, which lingered long after the physical pain subsided. For years, her abuser raped and beat her daily. She must never tell anyone, he threatened, because it would “open Pandora’s box.” Discussing her ordeal in counseling made her feel like it would open that box of monsters and shadows.

Her counselor, however, reminded her that the bottom or Pandora’s box held the light of hope. In her private sessions, he taught her to visualize walking down a hallway and opening doors to seek that light and the letters to spell the word “hope” in each room she imagined. As she transitioned out of her care at the YWCA she revealed that, for the first time when she did the exercise, she was finally able to identify all of the letters.

Dayton’s facility represents one of 14 new rape crisis centers that have opened in Ohio during the past five years, increasing the statewide total to 31, according to Rosa Beltre, Executive Director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the umbrella organization for all rape crisis centers in the state that oversees accreditation.

“Sexual violence is not occurring more often here,” she says. “But people are more willing to come forward and request our services and help.” The recent #MeToo movement, Beltre added, also instilled a greater sense that victims can regain their voice and share their stories to help heal themselves and other survivors of rape or sexual assault. Part of OAESV’s mission is to identify communities that would benefit from increased sexual assault advocacy services.

Each RCC office must meet five core standards: advocates trained in sexual violence and advocacy; a trained crisis hotline staff available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; legal and court advocates; the ability to send an advocate to a hospital within 30 minutes prior to a sexual assault kit examination; and the ability to work with a culturally diverse and marginalized population to serve all communities.

Beltre and OAESV work with cities the organization identifies or who have come to them to develop centers in communities without adequate rape crisis services.

Their task is a big job. Ohio’s Office of Criminal Justice Services most recent statistics indicated 5,589 rapes reported statewide in 2016. Nationally, 2 out of 3 rapes go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN.)

Ohio leads in some areas of addressing sexual violence, trails in others, and several new initiatives are slated for the near future. “Ohio was ahead of the curve when it passed the original bill for law enforcement to forward all sexual assault kits for testing (SB 316, 2015), but until December, it had been a while since Ohio had done anything legislatively to fill in those holes,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy & advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation in New York. “There has been some good work done on the ground level, especially in Cleveland.”

Eye on Ohio looked around the whole state to identify areas where preventing sexual assault and helping rape victims heal has significantly improved.

Cuyahoga County Leads in Sexual Assault Prosecutions

Cuyahoga County, which surrounds Cleveland, represents one of the highlights in Ohio during the past six years, Knecht believes, since the county founded its Sexual Assault Kit Task Force in 2013.

According to Richard Bell, assistant prosecutor and director of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office Sexual Assault Kit Task Force, they’ve reached the 68 percent completion mark and should be finished in a few years. The conviction rate of 92.7 percent as of February remains the highest known in US, Bell says, for similar Sexual Assault Kit Initiative efforts. They have recorded 719 indictments, with 405 defendants convicted with an average sentence of 11.01 years. Out of 7,001 backlog kit cases, they have closed 4,953.

Many of the cases that did not move forward, Bell explains, were primarily due to the age of the case that would affect the fairness of the trial. For example, a relevant witness had died or pertinent records had been lost during the decade or more since the case opened.

“People weren’t investigating as much as they thought they could, so the Attorney General’s office started to do more training,” says Bell, who has assisted with some of the training efforts statewide.

Cuyahoga County is currently enacting another backlog project: swabbing convicted felons for DNA testing. There are 15,000 people who owe Cuyahoga County their DNA because the Cleveland Police Department or county Sheriff’s Department did not collect them when they were originally arrested. At this time, only 10% have been swabbed, and of those 1,500, 63 had hits on CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database for other crimes. Twenty-six of those were for sexual assaults.

Sondra Miller, president and CEO of Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, founded in 1974, believes the volume of evidence that’s been tested and the number of cases investigated or reinvestigated and put forward for prosecution combined with the high conviction rate has distinguished Cleveland’s efforts from other parts of Ohio and the US.

“The criminal justice-focus here is where we have been ahead of the pack,” she says.

Moreover, former County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty embedded Rachel Lovell, senior research associate with the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at CWRU, in the SAK task force. Among other studies, she and her team analyzed more than 800 sexual assault kits from the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, dating from 1993 to 2009 that debunked several myths about serial rapists, for example.

Miller’s research showed that the rate of serial offenders is much higher than anyone previously understood and offender patterns often cross both stranger and intimate partner assaults.

To date, Bell’s task force has identified 472 serial rapists, 111 of which have committed both stranger and acquaintance rapes. The group publishes a monthly “scorecard” of key statistics since they started in 2013. In the past, when all kits were not tested, there was less awareness about serial offenders, and it was believed that rapists typically committed one type of rape. Now, they know there are more crossover offenders than previously thought.

“I’m starting to see more research published and more openness towards data, research and evaluation than when I started,” Lovell observes. “That’s a positive step that can make meaningful change.”

Toledo Continues to Build Victim Focus

This April, the Toledo Rape Crisis Center at YWCA Northwest Ohio will celebrate 30 years serving Greater Toledo, Lucas and Fulton counties. They are a standalone center and work separately from the YWCA’s domestic violence shelter.

Keri Black, rape crisis center director at the Toledo YWCA, said the center’s strength is ongoing case management for victims/survivors and their loved ones regarding anything relevant to sexual assault: safe and secure housing, public assistance, education, employment, legal advocacy, victim compensation, and walk-in and shelter resident support groups.

Black has seen the Toledo Police Department improve by an immeasurable margin in the last five and a half years particularly in providing officers with victim-centered, trauma-informed training. Fulton County, though more rural, is making similar progress but on a smaller scale, she said.

“From the victim advocate perspective, we have been very impressed with how those cases are handled and how the wellbeing of the victims in the cases was absolutely at the top of the list of priorities for every professional involved, not just the advocates,” she adds.

However, both in the state of Ohio and nationwide, Black cites a deficiency in the justice system that needs to be corrected. “In terms of prevention and trying to ensure that the rate of sexual assault decreases, it has to start with a higher prosecution rate,” Black says, echoing several others interviewed.

According according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network organization, approximately 5.7 percent of incidents end in arrest, with 0.7 percent leading to a felony conviction and 0.6 percent result in incarceration.

“Until offenders are being held accountable for their actions, people are going to continue to offend,” Black said.

Cincinnati Implements Innovative Programs

Women Helping Women, Cincinnati’s rape crisis center, recently implemented a new program where advocates go to scenes of domestic violence calls to provide intervention immediately during the crisis situation. Although it has not been evaluated yet, the program is considered progressive in the field of gender-based violence because it’s one of the first to send advocates to the scene.

In 2014, the organization collaborated with Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld and the city’s numerous college campuses to launch “It’s On Us, Cincinnati.” Although reporting standards still vary, the initiative created a forum for discussion and collaboration on initiatives necessary to standardize mechanisms for prevention and response on all campuses

One effort that arose in 2016 from the group is a bar bystander program to train the staff and management of bars and nightclubs.

“The direction we are headed is community intervention, community prevention and strategy, rather than individual level prevention such as going into a middle or high school to teach students,” says Ann Brandon, director of prevention for OAESV. “That is effective, but it’s not going to change the culture and conditions, which is primary prevention, that allows these types of violence to happen.”

The OhioHealth Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio (SARNCO) is partially funded to implement the Green Dot bystander intervention and violence prevention training program in high schools, with support from the Ohio Department of Health and other sources. Currently, the training will prepare faculty and students to implement the program.

In 2014, neighboring Kentucky completed a pilot study of Green Dot with 26,000 high school students. The program teaches students how to identify situations that could lead to a potential act of violence.

Preliminary results from the five-year study evaluating the program found a greater than 50 percent reduction in the self-reported frequency of sexual violence perpetration by students at schools that received the Green Dot training, compared to a slight increase at schools that did not.

“It has to be a multilevel strategic plan,” Brandon concludes. “There is no magic curriculum, no magic pill that’s going to stop violence, but this is the one that’s heavily researched and has the evidence behind it.”

Columbus Launches Prevention Initiatives for Campuses

In Columbus, the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s statewide Changing Campus Culture initiative started in October 2015. Before the program, a third of campuses would provide prevention training for faculty, staff, students and campus security officers. Now all do.

Ohio and New York are the only two states that address both prevention and response at college and university campuses statewide.

In Ohio, as a best practice, each college or university campus is encouraged to form a Sexual Assault Response Team. Each determines the appropriate team size and how often they meet. The ODHE office then works closely with the advisory groups to recommend safety and prevention policies and best practices. Each year, the campus teams self-report on achieving those recommended metrics; the office then reviews those reports and suggests any potential corrections or improvements.

“One of my responsibilities is to ensure continual monitoring and follow up with our institutions so that policies are the strongest they can be and the recommendations are being adhered to as effectively as possible,” said Ohio Chancellor of Higher Education Randy Gardner.

ODHE has supported campuses in implementing intervention campaigns such as Bringing in the Bystander, Step Up, Twenty to One to enforce bystander or “upstander” intervention methods that empower students, faculty or staff to understand what they can do to prevent sexual violence before it occurs.

“If we’re truly going to end sexual violence on campus and change culture we have to focus on prevention,” says Kerry Soller, project manager, Campus Safety & Sexual Violence Prevention, Ohio Department of Higher Education. “We have to focus on the conversations that are relevant to our students now.”

This June, for example, Soller’s office will roll out a new training program pertaining to the connection between alcohol and sexual violence. Recent statistics from Campus Safety magazine indicate about 43 percent of sexual assault events involve alcohol use by the victim; 69 percent involve alcohol use by the perpetrator.

Key Legislation Will Continue to Strengthen Efforts

This year, Senator John Eklund (R-Munson Township) plans to reintroduce SB 41 that would provide community advocates for sexual assault victims the privacy privilege that medical professionals and attorneys have with their clients. At present, they are required by law to reveal any details a client has conveyed, which often limits what their clients are willing to reveal.

Representatives Tavia Galonski (D-Akron) and Sarah LaTourette (R-Chesterland) plan to reintroduce a bill to eliminate the current statute of limitations of 25 years victims have to report rape or sexual assault crimes.

Working with Galonski, Representative Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) reintroduced HB 461 to consider children who are 16 or 17 as juveniles if they are arrested for prostitution and determine whether they may have been forced into it by traffickers. The previous cut-off age was 15.

“I feel optimistic that there is an opportunity to make some headway on those specific bills along with the other bills that are specifically working with victims and survivors,” said Erin Ryan, managing director of the Ohio Women’s Public Policy Network. She added that the human trafficking bill has a significant chance of being passed and enacted this year, based on the strength of Sen. Fedor’s record of getting other trafficking-related bills passed.

In December several major bills passed at the State House in Columbus. HB 511 is an updated marriage bill that amended the minimum marriage age for women to 18 and prohibits any woman 17 or under who gets pregnant from marrying anyone more than four years older. The latter stipulation is an acknowledgement of potential trafficking situations where older men marry younger women. Gov. John Kasich signed this bill into law on January 7, 2019.

Also passed were HB and SB 323, bills to enact tracking of sexual assault kits to inform victims where their kit is currently located (i.e., police department, crime lab). An advisory committee to Attorney General David Yost will flesh out details of how tracking will be implemented this year. Those bills were then amended into SB 201, the Reagan Tokes Act, and signed into law by Gov. Kasich on December 21, 2018.

During his administration, former Attorney General, now Governor, Mike DeWine directed the analysis of nearly 14,000 untested rape kits that led to more than 5,000 hits on the CODIS database.

In a prepared statement, he said the intention of the tracking bill is to empower survivors and allow them to instantly and anonymously find out where their evidence is in the testing process. It also will eliminate the concern that their evidence is sitting on a shelf collecting dust. The new system adds another layer of transparency and accountability for every agency involved in a rape investigation.

Ohio Attorney General’s Office said that 2018 statistics from the statewide uniform crime reports were not yet available and that Cuyahoga County’s Sexual Assault Kit Task Force was the only entity in the state that tracks case outcomes for their backlog kits.

This collaboration is funded in part by the Cleveland and the George Gund Foundation, and produced in association with Media in the Public Interest.

Christopher Johnston is a freelance journalist and author based in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @seechriswrite.